The touch of a loved one can evoke strong, pleasant emotions. Scientists now believe they have found the set of nerves that make up this ‘emotional touch’ system, reports a study in the September issue of Nature Neuroscience. The new findings suggest a function for a type of nerve whose role had previously been a mystery.
Studying the emotional aspects of touch is difficult because touching activates many different types of nerves in the skin. To determine which type is important for eliciting an emotional response, Håkan Olausson and colleagues in Sweden and Canada examined a patient who had completely lost the main touch nerves throughout most of her body. A specialized subset of nerves (called tactile C-fibers), however, remained intact. Despite the loss, when her arm was lightly stroked with a soft paintbrush, she could detect a slight, pleasant sensation. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found that areas of the brain involved in emotional processing were activated in response to the pleasant strokes. Because these special touch-related fibers were the predominant remaining nerves in the patient’s skin, the authors conclude that these fibers are the sensors for emotional touch.
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